Leader: Old system has merits

May 7, 2004

For almost a decade, there has been a consensus of sorts among academics that the traditional UK degree classifications have outlasted their usefulness. Only inertia and employers' insistence that no alternative system would be comprehensible has prevented change. But now grade inflation has reached the point where the traditionalists will surely have to give way. With 55 per cent of undergraduates awarded a first or upper-second (more than double the proportion ten years ago), the previously ubiquitous 2:2 is regarded by students as akin to failure. The 2:1 has become almost the threshold standard for a first degree, used by growing numbers of employers as a convenient pre-interview sifting tool.

Even a first has lost some of the cachet it once enjoyed.

The "scoping group" reporting to ministers will not find it easy to settle on a replacement, however. Academics might look for more precision - either through a more detailed record of achievement or the adoption of the US grade point average - but employers will still want simplicity. Records of achievement have been tried and largely abandoned in schools, while grade points imply a level of accuracy and comparability across universities that few believe exists. The irony is that broad grades suit higher education perfectly, if only they could be reinvented.

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